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Start-up to burst into Web chat arena

Off to a late start but undeterred by the competition, a San Francisco start-up plans to launch into the crowded field of Web-wide chat applications.

Off to a late start but undeterred by the competition, a San Francisco start-up today plans to launch into the crowded field of Web-wide chat applications.

As first reported in January, CrowdBurst is the most recent in a series of start-ups that promise to turn sites across the Web into spontaneous chat rooms.

These applications, which include Odigo and Gooey, consist of an independent chat window whose members change as a person surfs from page to page.

This type of technology has caught the interest of America Online, the leader in the instant messaging market, which is working on its own competing technologies.

As reported earlier, CrowdBurst, founded last August, enters the fray promising a more comprehensive set of communications tools. In addition to the chat capabilities, CrowdBurst offers "Notes," a method of posting messages to a Web site, much like an application offered by ThirdVoice.

Another CrowdBurst feature, called "Trails," lets one person lead a "tour" of various Web sites for a group of other Net users.

Perhaps the most potent arrow in CrowdBurst's quiver is that, unlike its established adversaries, the application does not require a software download.

Downloads, even the smallest of which interrupt a Web surfing session, may discourage people from trying out applications. But CrowdBurst uses the Java programming language and JavaScript scripting language to launch its interface without a download.

The start-up is pinning its revenue hopes on advertising dollars and co-branding sponsorship with other Web sites. Partners so far include BeautyQ.com, Elok.com, Financial Finesse, FreeOnline, Red Button and SF Interactive, though those sites are using CrowdBurst free of charge for now.

CrowdBurst also is eyeing the valuable information it will assemble about where its users travel on the Web and what they do there as a potential revenue source. The start-up says people will only be identified by a screen name and therefore should not be concerned about the application's privacy implications.

The firm boasts talent from Netscape and other "first-generation" Web companies. Jed Kleckner, former director of product marketing for Netscape's messaging and collaboration group, is now CrowdBurst's vice president of business development. Spence Murray, former lead engineer for Netscape's Communicator browser for the Unix platform, is now CrowdBurst's director of product development. CrowdBurst's director of marketing also worked at Netscape.

CrowdBurst has collected more than $1 million in angel funding and is in the process of assembling its first round of venture capital.